Peter’s Story part 1 starts in Grabben Gullen, a sleepy little one horse town about an hours drive north east of Canberra. Not far from here is a creek that nature deposited in its gravel beautiful blue sapphires. I first found out about these in 1962. At this stage very few people knew there were quality stones to be found by those who put in the effort. As sapphires are heavier than the rest of the gravel they accumulate in the deeper parts of the creek and behind natural traps like waterfalls and big rocks. So armed with a shovel and pick the method is to extract the gravel from these traps and sieve it through a cluster of sieves of decreasing mesh size. Once sieved, with a spin of the wrists, the heavier material can be centrifugally placed and when tipped upside down on a clean surface the sapphires easily seen. During the summer months my friend Geoff and I would spend many weekends camped beside the creek seeking our treasure. Our parents would drop us out there on Friday afternoon and collect us on Sunday. We would take our guitars and sing around a campfire at night and look for sapphires during the day. I remember vividly one waterfall of about 3 feet height that we worked. We spent a full day partially redirecting the water flow to enable better access to the gravels. Below the waterfall was a very deep natural trap that contained to our delight an abundance of sapphires. We were averaging 15 to 20 sapphires per sieve. Some of these were the highly sort after dog tooth crystals of fine color and up to 5 carats in weight. At the end of our weekend we had filled a coffee jar with almost a kilo of sapphire. At our young age value was not an issue. We simply enjoyed the discovery. Sadly today I don’t have a single one of these sapphires to show for all the fun I had. When I was eighteen I gave forty of the best stones to an interstate dealer at the local gem show for cutting. He was to keep a couple for the cutting and I would get the rest. That was the last I saw of them. Today the area has been worked, reworked and worked some more. To find a sapphire of any grade is an achievement.
First Australian Gemboree 1965
The Gemboree is an event held annually at Easter and is a gathering point for gem collectors and fossickers. It attracts a large crowd and runs for several days. The first was held in the Warrumbungle National Park in 1965.
The park contains spectacular landscape shaped by an ancient volcano which has eroded over the 17 million years since the eruptions first started. The volcanic cores stand congregated magnificently like sentinels above the flat sandstone plain and can be seen from a great distance. I have always felt these are Australia’s most beautiful ancient volcanoes. When Geoff and I heard about the Gemboree we desperately wanted to attend. Our parents agreed. We could go by train to Coonabarabran and then hitchhike the 35 kilometers into the park. Attending it was to have a monumental impact on the direction my adult life would eventually take. After arriving at Coonabarabran train station we walked the short distance to the road leading to the national park. We had constructed a cardboard sign with the word Gemboree written in large letters. We held it up and before long a Ute pulled over to give us a lift. We hopped in the back and to our amazement it was full of boxes of magnificent amethyst crystals and other gemstones. These were of a quality I had only seen in books so we were keen to learn more about the couple who owned them. Frank and Maureen Soklich owned several gemstone leases in Western Australia including the Great Australian Amethyst Mine. They had come to the Gemboree to develop another market for their gemstones. Geoff and I camped beside them and were enthralled with stories that made my head spin. At the end of the Gemboree Frank invited us to come to Perth and stay with them over the Christmas school holidays. He would show us his mines and the warehouse where the gemstones were graded and packed for shipping. On their way back to Perth they came to Canberra and stayed with us for a day or two. My parents agreed for me to go to Perth. Geoff decided he wouldn’t go as he would miss his family too much.
Mid December 1966 my adventure began. The trip was to be for six weeks and was by far the longest time I had been away from my parents. I travelled by train from Yass to
Melbourne where I changed trains to Port Augusta. From there it was another train across the magnificent Nullabor plain to Kalgoorlie. Yet another train delivered me to Perth. Across the Nullabor I shared a sleeping compartment with a fettler who had been working for several months on the remotest part of the railway. He informed me he was on his way to Kalgoorlie to screw every prostitute in Hay Street. In 1965 prostitution was legal in Kalgoorlie and Hay Street was apparently wall to wall women catering mainly for the gold miners who earned extremely good money. He said his routine was to work for a few months and then travel to Kalgoorlie to blow it all in a week on women and booze. With plenty of time to pass he divulged the most intimate details of his many encounters. At the tender age of sixteen I can only describe our conversation as ‘enlightening’.
Frank and Maureen picked me up at the station and drove me to their house on the outskirts of Perth. Their house was situated in the middle of an Almond plantation. Beside the house was a large shed brimming with rocks and crystals of all varieties. Around the sheds were piles of assorted gem rough. Frank’s two brothers Dan and Stan helped run the family business. His mother and father ran the mining operation at the Great Australian Amethyst mine which was situated on Wyloo station about 1500 kilometers north of Perth.
During my time with Frank he explained how his business worked and was a great mentor to me in establishing my own business. Many of his lessons I still adhere to today and it was his advice that taught me the gemstone business from ground level through to retail. After a few days at home we headed north to visit his amethyst mine and a few of his other leases on the way. He had a captivated audience and I bombarded him with all types of questions ranging from how he got his leases to prospecting techniques to finding new markets. With the long distances we had to travel there was plenty of time for these tutorials. His amethyst mine was situation on the side of a slight hill. In 1965 it was a shallow pit about 30 meters long and a few meters deep. The entire pit contained amethyst crystals and clusters encased in clay. These had to be carefully extracted so as not to damage the points so mining was a slow process.
We arrived just before Christmas day and stayed about a week. The temperature was well over 40 degrees most of the time and only cooled sufficiently at night to allow fitful sleep. On our first day Frank warned me not to pick up any shovels by the metal part. He did this graphically by breaking an egg on the shovel and frying it almost instantly. Beside their camp was an old fashioned enamel full length bath tub. At some stage a giant desert goanna decided it would come and live at the camp. Its favorite place to lie was in this bathtub. It would rest it’s head on one end and its tail would hang over the other. Frank had a trick where he held an egg out and the goanna would send out a lightning fast tongue and take the egg from between his fingers and scurry off to devour it. Perhaps it was treats like this that enticed it to stay. Franks mum and dad were at the final stages of extracting the finest amethyst cluster they had ever found at the mine. It was about two meters square and could only just be lifted by four of us. It had three perfect double terminated crystals of about a foot in length magnificently placed in the middle. The cluster was remarkable as it had no damage of any type and was incredibly shiny. To this day I have never seen a specimen of amethyst that comes close. It eventually sold to Mr. Cotton an American millionaire oil tycoon who also ran a business called Cotton Gems. He travelled the world buying fine specimens of all types for his wife’s collection. I spent each day mining amethyst and was allowed to keep the better ones. On Christmas day I found a quite large single crystal that I still have. The week ended too quickly and it was back to Perth to help Frank pack countless drums of rocks for an overseas order.
On one trip to Leonora (near Kalgoolie) Frank looked at a large parcel of about a ton of very high quality chrysoprase. I remember it distinctly as the chrysoprase was the brightest green and in nodule form. When the pieces were held up to the sun they were the most beautiful translucent green that was almost luminescent. The entire lot was of the best quality. Frank did not have the money to buy it so he swapped his almost new Ute for the parcel on the condition that we and the chrysoprase were given a lift back to Perth. This was a valuable lesson as if you see something unique where there is obvious profit then buy it because if you don’t someone else will and you can’t afford to procrastinate. Today that parcel would be worth hundreds of times what it was then. Chrysoprase is a surface indication that there may be nickel below. Frank had several leases on chrysoprase deposits around Leonora and when the nickel boom came he made good money selling his leases to nickel prospecting companies.
Frank “grub stacked” an aboriginal to mine Tantalite near Payne’s find (424 kilometers north east of Perth). It was shallow mining and the machinery used was a small backhoe. I remember it because of an isolated incident whilst going on a prospecting walk with Frank in the vicinity. We came across an outcropping black mica band. In this were quite a few opaque dark green emerald crystals about the size of a thumb. I was quite impressed but Frank said there would never be gem quality crystals and they would all be opaque so we moved on. All this took less then half an hour and what struck me was the perfection of the crystals. Today the specimen market is huge and I am sure this deposit would be very valuable. I have no idea where it is as I was just following Frank. The backhoe was bought back to Perth for repairs and one night the aboriginal became quite distraught and told Frank he had to leave immediately because of big trouble with his brother. His family lived somewhere north of Perth and a couple of days drive away. There had been no contact and Frank had no idea how the aboriginal knew there was a problem. Mental telepathy and ‘knowing’ is well documented with the aboriginal race and this was my first experience of it. He returned several days later and told us his brother had died the night he had become distraught.
My time with Frank finished too quickly and I was delivered to the train for the journey back. In January 1966 Western Australia was subjected to large amounts of rainfall that resulted in the Nullabor Plain being flooded. This happened just as I was leaving Perth with the result the train was stranded for several days at Cook, a small town just inside South Australia. I had met a lovely young lady named Janice so my time was kept delightfully busy. She had a sleeper all to herself and although my virginity came close to being lost on the Nullabor it remained with me for the time being. Every morning a guard would walk through the carriages saying loudly, “First call for breakfast, first call for breakfast, would all those holding first call sitting cards please move to the dining car where your breakfast is now awaiting you”. Janice had a very good tape recorder so one morning we taped the guard as he did his round. The next morning about 5 a.m. (2 hours early) we walked through the carriages with a tape recorder playing….”First call for breakfast”, etc. It was fun watching all the bleary eyed travelers making their way to the dining car. Chaos prevailed as the chef wasn’t even out of bed yet.
I arrived a week late for my final year at high school with a much broader picture of life and it’s endless possibilities and directions. The school year passed remarkably quickly. I suppose this was because of working, our band and with football during winter there was little time to be bored. Frank was now sending me parcels of rough gemstones and minerals and I was selling these wherever I could and keeping a commission. I was also interested in trout fishing and on those days that were available my father and I would venture to any creek known to be inhabited by trout within a few hours drive of Canberra. He taught me the basics of finding the fish, identifying what they were feeding on and how to present irresistible bait. I found it extremely satisfying to complete this circle and come home with a fish or two to show for our effort.
The subjects I studied in my final year were Maths, English, Geography, History and Economics. I passed all except History. Perhaps Mao Tsi Tung was not as important to future Japanese dynasties as I was attempting to argue in my last selected essay for the final exam or possibly it was that I had no idea Mao was actually Chinese or that he was important to anybody. I can remember looking at the exam paper and thinking “Oh shit! I can only answer four of the questions. What the hell am I going to do with the last one?”
I feel my education was not lacking. Perhaps I didn’t pay attention to the more traditional academic aspects but in my formative years I was most certainly educated in other ways. In the main I was attentive to the lessons; I really was just not that interested. Perhaps I had a drive towards self education in the areas that appealed to me. It certainly turned out this way and I don’t regret any of the passions that pushed me. I have the utmost admiration for my parent’s ability to steer me and help find direction for these passions. They could have chosen to enforce a more rigid approach to my schooling. I remember a vocational guidance test we all had in our final year. This was to identify strengths and weaknesses and suggest possible occupation paths for consideration. My results came back suggesting clerical work with little likelihood of a successful path in my chosen interests of opal and gemstones. I would personally like to push this piece of paper down the throat of the writer and wonder how many passions were extinguished by this miss guided individual.
A highlight of my last year at school was obtaining my driver’s license. As soon as I got my learner’s permit I plagued my dad for driving lessons. Every night I would beg him to take me for a drive. One night he gave me the lecture on always checking in the rear vision mirror before reversing. I had just come inside leaving my dad in the car when there was a loud crash. My father had just reversed into the gate on the way to the garage. After several weeks of practice I passed my test on the first attempt. This was to give my life a freedom of movement as my parents lent me their car whenever they were not using it. This allowed me to go to band engagements, football practices and of course visit young ladies.
On one of the bands engagements at Chapter One I met Marilyn. It was a week night and her parents had allowed her to attend with her friend Fran We chatted most of the time I wasn’t playing and I arranged to visit her at the weekend. She was an only child and lived with her parents in the most uppity suburb of Canberra, Forrest. I was instantly attracted to her and she had wonderfully expressive cheeky eyes. There was a mutually magnetic sexual attraction that ignited some feverish physical exploration over many of our early dates. Having the use of my parent’s station wagon car only added more scope for potential fondling sessions. Our favorite place to ‘park’ was amongst the wattle and gum trees on the very top of capital hill. This was only a couple of minutes from Marilyn’s place and was a popular place for such going’s on as there were several tracks in and the trees lent a certain level of privacy.
Saturday night was a particular popular night and all parking places were generally taken. One particular night our ‘hands on’ approach to exploration sessions became somewhat over heated. Hormones and her moans saturated the air. Youthful testosterone fogged up the windows and in a lustful final exploration of passion our virginities became a memory. I don’t know if parliament house was erected on top of this site as a commemoration of the large number of virginities lost or simply something less exciting like the central convenient setting for the new parliament house. At least it was erected on sacred ground!
With the burden of ‘never really knowing’ removed from our shoulders our relationship took on a whole new dimension and to make sure we got it right we kept right on doing it. A few months later with so much going on in both our lives and our final year of schooling finished we went amicably in our own direction.
My last day of school left me with a funny feeling. I remember feeling a sense of loss and finality combined with an intense excitement over the future. Most students spent the afternoon celebrating and partying. I went trout fishing in the nearby Goodradigbee river where I could quietly reflect in a tranquil setting and anticipate the future.